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…there once was a planet called pluto…

July 15, 2015

Once upon a time, there was a planet that we named Pluto, and no, it wasn’t named after Mickey Mouse’s pet dog. No, Pluto, in ancient classical Greek mythology was the god of the Underworld, the keeper and ruler of the dead.  He was portrayed as a stern lover who stole his love, Persephone, from the land of the living.

pluto

The Greek idea of the next world differs quite a bit from our Westernized Judeo-Christian construct. It has many different places within it for the dead to dwell in, from places of torment, to places of everlasting pleasure, and where you ended up was based on how you lived your life.

You may have noticed that many of the objects in near space have names based on mythology.  Jupiter, who was the Roman King of the Gods, Mars was the Roman god of war, etc. If you dig a little, you find that Pluto’s moons are also named after people and places associated with or located in the Greek underworld. Charon was the name of the ferryman who took the dead from the land of the living into Hades and his mother was Nix. Kerberos is the Greek spelling of Cerberus, the three headed dog who stands guard at the gates of Hades to prevent the dead from leaving and the living from entering. Hydra, the remaining moon is a sibling to Cerberus. And no, Hydra didn’t start as the villains in a comic book either. The Hydra was the offspring of Echidna, who was half woman and half serpent, and Typhon, who even the gods feared. Like Cerberus, the Hydra defended a gate to the Underworld, one that was underwater.

Interestingly enough, Pluto was thought to be the ninth planet in our solar system until the planet Eris was discovered, Eris being the goddess of chaos. Eris is said to have tossed a golden apple into the midst of the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite with an inscription stating that it was for “the most beautiful one” causing an uproar as each sought to claim it.  Fitting she’d come along to upset the apple cart again, no?

Pluto, the god, lived apart from his fellow gods for the most part, with mostly the dead for company.  Fittingly, Pluto, the planet (or dwarf-planet, if you prefer) lives out of sync with the rest of us, it’s orbit off kilter, higher and more elliptical than circular.  Of course, we couldn’t have known that when we first found it, just like we couldn’t know most of the details we’ll be finding out as the New Horizons probe sends more data and our earth bound scientists can sort through it all.

It’s a little bit awe inspiring to think about it, about this little man made probe we hurled out into the darkness of space, and it’s nine year journey to get to Pluto, the data and images it has sent back, and will continue to send back providing nothing breaks it or throws it back at us.  It’s a little like we’re connecting two dots, the distant, ancient past and the distant, unknowable future, drawing them in a circle around us and trying to tell the story.

Or I’m just a mythology geek and a lover of science and space and couldn’t resist the chance to trot them out for your perusal.

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